It’s tough being a cop in Kampala

November 7, 2005

PDF Version with Photo

KAMPALA, UGANDA – It’s a midweek night and I’m on a cold, metal chair in a dingy, local police station. Sitting nearby under a dim light, a cop asks me questions.

“Sorry,” he says, hearing of my loss. He writes slowly. Too slowly. I lose confidence early during this, my first Ugandan robbery report, File #

It could be worse. I could be dead. Or I could be the poor guy behind me, with passport, cash and credit cards all stolen. Still, the relative bad news is that my pricey work camera has been ripped off.

My family’s vehicle – a 10-year-old Land Cruiser – was burglarized. In broad daylight. Near a large store entrance.

Thieves smashed a back window to steal the vehicle’s electronic door panels, apparently hot on Uganda’s black market. A Roots Canada bag, with said camera, was likely just a bonus.

Thud, went my heart, when I saw the mess.

I called over parking security: three scrawny boy-men.

Carrying old, wooden guns, they might as well have played cops and robbers with hockey sticks underarm. They didn’t have much to say. Two hours later police, with AK-47s, arrived.

That is after I walked to the above-mentioned station to get them myself.

“Sorry,” an officer said, scanning the damage. Another hour and the parking security manager arrived. “Sorry,” he echoed.

Later, trying to understand why a competent investigation was going nowhere fast, I learned about Ugandan justice. Surveys show less than half of Uganda’s thefts are even reported.

Victims simply have no hope of recovering their property. Just one-quarter of Ugandans are satisfied with their police. To compare, North America’s rate is as high as 74 per cent.

No, cops here aren’t society’s top guns. In fact, broken relationships and rotten living conditions contribute to their high HIV/AIDS rate of 13 per cent, double the national average.

And they get no respect. None. A hydro company recently turned off the lights at precincts across the country, over unpaid bills. Such is police funding. A starting constable now earns 150,000 shillings, about $100 Cdn, a month.

No wonder Joseph, my investigating officer, had to borrow my mobile phone. No wonder, to get to the crime scene, he had me pay for our taxi, a beater-van with about 15 passengers crammed inside.

“You’re the police,” I protested, not yet aware of how Uganda’s finest live.

The next day, while driving Joe and another vehicle-less detective to Kampala’s police headquarters, we arrived to see officers running down the street, chasing a suspect who apparently just snuck out of HQ’s front door. It was slapstick at its worst.

Joe, a veteran of 26 years, turned to me and said, “Things can happen here. That’s the fun of life.”

Yes sir. Yeehaw.

Of course he’s right. Along with Latin America, Africa has the world’s highest burglary and theft rates. One survey shows 41 per cent of Uganda’s vehicle owners have experienced theft from their vehicles. Nobody is safe. Years ago, in traffic, one brazen thief reached in an open window of my wife’s car, unlocked a back door, and snatched a purse.

Don’t get caught though. Two local construction workers recently convicted of stealing five bags of cement got two years in jail. And the state can’t afford much. So Uganda’s jails aren’t The Hilton. They’re also filled with folks who can’t read or write, oblivious to their rights.

Back to police headquarters. Joe, his detective colleague, and I drove there – in my messed-up vehicle – to photograph the damage for police records. In this saga’s best comment yet, another detective greeting us said, “Cameras are pretty hard to find here (at headquarters.”)

You don’t say. I’ve even heard of Ugandan university students studying photography without cameras. That’s the picture of my loss.

I’m hoping Joe can help get me some compensation. But I can’t reach him these days. Seems his mobile isn’t working.

“Sorry. But don’t let this taint your view of the country,” an expatriate friend later told me.

Heavens, no. Don’t worry. Our vehicle is fixed. It’s now loaded with an alarm that can wake the dead. I’ll somehow get another camera. And I know most Ugandans are very fine people.

But I’ll still have to write about it all.

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November 7, 2005 • Posted in ,
Contact Thomas at [email protected]


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